Friday, April 9, 2010

Israel's Pentagon Papers

Common sense tells you that the Israeli military, charged with keeping Israeli citizens as safe as possible, should have the right to keep operational plans secret; and that the government--acting within bounds set by the judiciary--should have the right to censor any stories about such plans and prosecute the people who leak them. But what if the military, acting as an occupation force, is itself violating bounds set by the judiciary, and its actions are arguably making citizens less safe? What if a whistle-blower leaks documents to a journalist, who then uses them to write a story questioning the legality or efficacy of the military's actions? What if the story is itself passed by the censor, but the government opens an investigation into the journalist's sources?

What, then, if the journalist, cooperating with the investigation, hands over documents in an agreement that stipulates that they could not be used to prosecute the source, if found? And what, nevertheless, if the government finds the whistle-blower and charges her under laws written, not to deal with the press, but to prevent espionage for a hostile foreign government? What if the government refuses to renounce the option of arresting the journalist for holding prohibited documents--so he remains in London, refusing to return to the country?

THIS, IN A nutshell, is the troubling case of a young woman, Anat Kam, who allegedly (well, apparently) leaked documents from the office of the Central Command to Haaretz journalist Uri Blau, showing that the IDF systematically issued operational guidelines to its soldiers quite different from regulations the courts have required. The latter decreed that the military may not simply engage in targeted assassination in the occupied territories; that, rather, soldiers must at least try to take Palestinian suspects alive, and not unreasonably endanger innocent bystanders during search operations. Blau's original piece exposed how the IDF ignored these bounds. He explored cases where Palestinians who might have been arrested were killed, as were bystanders.

Haaretz--which, as if more proof were needed, is emerging as a great world newspaper--is defending its journalist with all of its force. I won't attempt to compete with its morning edition, that gives any patient reader the full picture, including this editorial, arguing how military intelligence broke the deal it made with the paper, and this follow-up by Blau.

I will, however, make one point the paper does not make, about the efficacy of targeted assassinations themselves. Presumably, these are justified, and the regulations issued to facilitate them justified, because occupation forces preempt attacks on Israeli civilians by getting the bad guys before they get us. I have no doubt that, in some cases, this preemption has saved lives. But what if, on the whole, the opposite is true, that shooting preemptively and recklessly raises the likelihood of violence against Israelis.

ANYONE WHO GIVES this a moment's thought must see this is at least possible. An old friend of mine, the University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym, carefully studied all 138 suicide bombings between September 2000 and mid-July 2005. He concluded that, in the vast majority of cases, the suicide bombers themselves—whatever their “ideological” predispositions, or the groups that claimed responsibility—had lost a friend or close relative to Israeli fire. They acted, he wrote, “out of revenge.”

Which is precisely why the newspaper was as justified in exposing these secret documents as the Times and the Post were justified in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Haaretz's Akiva Eldar connected the dots this morning when he wrote that he expects the real story of how the Al-Aqsa Intifada got started is buried somewhere in similar documents--the ones we have not yet seen--documents pointed to by Kam's leaked ones, testifying to the IDF's vendetta culture:

Right now, hundreds of clerks and officers are sitting in the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the army lacking the courage to contact a journalist and divulge that the ministers or commanders in charge are endangering their children's future.

Some are keeping to themselves the real story behind the big lie peddled by Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon - the falsehood that "Yasser Arafat planned the intifada," which gave rise to the disastrous "there is no partner" ideology. The real story, of course, is contained in documents stamped with the words "Top Secret."


I expect we will soon hear stories about Kam's youth, or ingenuousness, or flakiness, which all may be as true as Daniel Ellsberg's depressions. None of this changes the importance to Israeli democracy of airing the question of whether targeted assassinations as practiced and sanctioned by the IDF command are either morally acceptable in a country of law or will make any of us sleep more safely, even if not more soundly.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been following this story closely, and I while I agree with much of your analysis, one fact still troubles me. If those documents do contain classified information that could be valuable to our enemies, aren't Kam and Blau acting immorally as well for not returning them?

From my experience in the IDF, I have every reason to believe that what the journalists claim is true. It is a deeply troubling truth that Israeli's have such a hard time confronting the religion of "Securitism" and taking the IDF to task when it oversteps its legal bounds.

On the other hand, I have strong reason to believe that the hundreds of pages of documents stolen by Kam were "Tikei Misomot" (mission plans) that reveal in scrupulous detail the inner workings of IDF combat units. These documents likely described the plans for extra-judicial killings by various "mistaravim" units (amongst others) that Kam was looking for. You don't need to be an intelligence expert to realize how valuable these documents would be to our enemies.

It's easy to put the blame entirely on our hyper-sensitive security apparatus for this episode, but in my opinion Haaretz needs to take some responsibility as well. They should be retrieving those documents from London any way they can.

Potter said...

The disconnect is between being a democracy with an absolutely essential free press (to inform and hold people in authority accountable) and at the same time maintaining a "security state" and an occupation.This is the status quo that some would maintain in Israel.

I spent some time this am reading those articles in Haaretz and I could not tell you which one was the better- they all were so good.

Shooting recklessly and preemptively is just what we were seeing here in the US coincidentally (regarding whistle-blowers) with the release by wikileaks of a video of American soldiers in Iraq shooting at innocents from above as though they were playing a video game. Shocking and shameful this, for our security and "freedom". The similarity is the twisted mentality that a state of war brings, the depravity and lawlessness.

Doug Greener said...

Speak for yourself, Bernard. I sleep much more safely, and soundly, knowing that potential bombers are killed where they live and scheme before they can get at us. Apparently, the Palestinians also sleep better, since they are the ones who finger the jihadists. As for the "falsehood" that Arafat planned the 2000 intifada, well you can also believe that the sun revolves around the earth. At least one Arafat associate has already admitted this -- but, hey, don't let facts get in the way of your ideology.

Before the last elections, you and Ha'aretz, that great "world-class" newspaper you're crazy about, had your shot at convincing the Israeli people that your way is the right way to bring peace. The party closest associated with your views won three seats, the mimimum allowable under Israeli law. You say you care about Israeli democracy, but what you really cherish is your ideology above all.

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